Issue: Issue Spring 2009

Palm Springs - Hollywood's Playground


     Arriving in Palm Springs by car is a bit like walking through the front gates to Warner Brothers back in the 30s. Suddenly you’re on the set for “Robin of Sherwood”, lots of actors in a very green setting. Maybe a closer description would be that it looks like someone has thrown a green rug onto the parched earth of the desert. Abruptly, the lunar landscape of the desert stops and seems to suddenly burst into bloom.

It’s an oasis where everything is glorified and glamorous,
where exclusivity and style are the cache’ and coin of the realm.

     It’s an oasis where everything is glorified and glamorous, where exclusivity and style are the cache’ and coin of the realm. There are two main streets in paradise. Driving in on Palm Canyon is how people arrive and the parallel world of Indian Canyon Drive is the way out.

     Although it has a big name, Palm Springs is actually a little town with a very small population, something like 45,000 souls live there. It’s 99 miles due east of Hollywood. Palm Springs is where Hollywood has come for the last 90 years or so, to get away from the physical pressure of work of movies and the social pressure of the people who make them. The treks started when location scouts were looking for desert backgrounds for Rudolph Valentino in “The Sheik” or maybe not. Since this is a town built on people who engage in fiction in a serious way everything has to be fact-checked at least twice!

     That distance is a critical factor. In the old silent movie days and just after the inception of sound in the business there were clauses in the contracts which would not allow the actors, directors and producers to travel further than 100-125 miles from Hollywood while they were at work on studio pictures. Hence, Palm Springs’ magnetic attraction and social importance as a place for the stars to get away from the pressure of the studios. Palm Springs was in the desert, had the charm of anonymity and, yet, was close enough to get back quickly for a call at 7 or a dinner at 8.

     The list of names of men who had homes here is amazing: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Jack Benny, George Hamilton, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Alan Ladd and then the list of women is pretty overwhelming: Cher, Dinah Shore, Kitty Carlisle, Lily Tomlin, Elizabeth Taylor and ultimately what glamorous men and women inevitably do together, they become famous couples like these: Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Steve Lawrence and Edye Gorme’, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Lucy and Desi, Elvis and Priscilla, David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones, Liberace and his piano and finally, Ike and Mamie Eisenhower, Ron and Nancy Reagan and Walter and Lee Annenberg and well, the list is just beginning. Oh, yes, and as an afterthought, the oldest chimp in the world is resident, too – Cheeta, Tarzan’s 76 year old co-star who has his own house in Palm Springs!

     Frank Capra, the director of “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” even filmed one of his most famous movies here, in the hills behind Palm Springs. Yep, just to add a little more exotic glamour to the town it’s also the home to the exteriors for 1937’s “Lost Horizon”. Convenient for Frank Capra because he, too, had a home in Palm Springs. So, filming was very convenient.

The treks started when location scouts
were looking for desert backgrounds for
Rudolph Valentino in “The Sheik”

     So, what does it all mean? Why Palm Springs and not somewhere else?

     At the mercy of the searing desert sun, the little town has been a place where the famous have flocked to cavort and carouse behind the high walls and in the secluded interiors for nearly a hundred years. Palm Springs remains elusive and very exclusively itself, hidden away from public view and still somewhat secretive.

     The hotels and spas and restaurants in Palm Springs have a wonderful haute’ sway. The extraordinary is well represented here. As your correspondent, I must tell you about a rather wonderful little hotel which is a favorite of mine in Palm Springs. It’s actually a mid- century architectural gem, The Palm Springs Rendezvous. The place elevates the term “little hotel in a small town” to the status of a precious gem in a glittering tiara. Dinner my first night at Wang’s in The Desert was a treat. Charming modern Asian atmosphere and delicious food.

     The next day I took the tour of the city with Melody Winston of Palm Springs Tours and More and had a wonderful three hour tour with this Palm Springs insider. It’s amazing how many accomplished folks live now or have lived in the little town and Melody knows who they were, where they hung out and fascinating details about them. She can even arrange for some of the homes of the famous to be rented for parties and overnight stays.

     Melody was full of gossip and little bits of trivia. Will Ferrell had just been to the Parker Hotel a few weekends before and Diana of “The Bachelorette” had
just visited the little town and toured the city.

     That night I ate at Copley’s which is built into four guest houses which were on the Cary Grant estate. In fact, they were his guest houses, so it was another star studded evening.

     Palm Springs is splendid. It’s a word I don’t use often enough, but it truly is and I would return in a New York minute. It has charm and, well, interest. I have taught film history at the Smithsonian Institution and at Chapman University and so for me, it was magnetic. However, if you aren’t interested in movie history, it will hold your attention as a place of charm and beauty. I can’t wait to return.

Richard Basch is a film historian, critic and scholar, who is currently writing, producing and directing a TV documentary about Herman and Joeseph Mankiewicz, called “The Spoken Word”. He also writes destination travel stories, internationally, and is a professional photographer. He can be reached at


     Celebrating its 20th anniversary, The Palm Springs International Film Festival scheduled January 6-19, 2009, will include over 400 screenings of more than 200 films from approximately 60 countries. The Festival presents a majority of the films submitted for consideration in the Best Foreign Language category for the Academy Awards, as well as a large number of American independent and international features and documentaries marking their world, North American or U.S. debuts. Screenings are held on 15 screens throughout Palm Springs.

     The Festival opens with its glamorous annual black tie Awards Show on Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Hosted by Entertainment Tonight’s Mary Hart, the Awards Show will honor individuals in the film industry with nine prestigious awards for acting, directing, achievement in film scoring and life achievement.. Actress Dakota Fanning will be honored this year with the Rising Star Award.

     The traditional Opening Night screening and party will take place on Thursday, January 8. Fifteen screens will operate from 9:00 a.m. until 11 p.m. beginning Friday, January 9. The Closing Night screeningand party will take place on Sunday, January 18, and the Best of the Festival will screen all day on Monday, January 19.

     Founded in 1990 by then Mayor Sonny Bono, and presented by the Palm Springs International Film Society, the Festival is one of the largest film festivals in North America. The Festival has an attractive film sales and distribution record and is seen by American distributors as one of the best Academy Award campaign marketing tools.

For additional information, call the Festival headquarters at
(760) 322-2930 or (800) 898-7256
or visit the website at